In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord argues that modern society is dominated by the “spectacle,” that transforms life into “mere representation” (1) alienating the individual from direct experience and the real nature of production and interaction.
In the society of the spectacle, life is abstracted into images and illusions which replace “the satisfaction of primary human needs, now met in the most summary manner, by a ceaseless manufacture of pseudo-needs” which exist to perpetuate the economic conditions that generated the spectacle in the first place (51). “The spectacle is a permanent opium war waged to make it impossible to distinguish goods from commodities, or true satisfaction from a survival that increases according to its own logic” (44). Like consumerism on overdrive, “spectacular society” creates a plethora of desires and urges that can only be fulfilled by the spectacular society, thus ensnaring individuals within its system. Presenting “false models of revolution” (57), “sham battles” that conceal the totality of the spectacular society (56), images of possible roles for the individual, the spectacle cajoles us into entering its circus tent without us even realizing it.
While Debord’s analysis highlights crucial issues about the role of images in the modern world, his understanding of mass culture also creates some difficult questions. Products of mass or popular culture are most frequently chided for lacking any critical look, for being simply distracting fluff. According to this view, these are images which satisfy something—Debord’s “pseudo-needs”—while effectively being nothing. Debord himself comes down quite harshly on mass culture. Must we discard all mass culture as illusion then?
The problem with this, however, is that mass/popular culture is the arena in which the average person is able to actually engage with cultural production. Street style fashion trends appearing on the runway, mainstreaming of underground music, fanfiction bestsellers—these are all instances where culture was shaped from the ground up rather than imposed from above. I won’t deny that these are all inextricably tied to consumption, and that in some ways they rather reinforce the current capitalist order rather than resist it, but I also do not think we can entirely discard these phenomena. Each reveals a moment where the “roles” presented to individuals were redrawn by people.
Lastly, if spectacular images are illusion, is there any room for analysis? Debord states, “any critique capapble of apprehending the spectacle’s essential character must expose it as visible negation of life—and as a negation of life that has invented a visual for itself” (8). If we keep both this idea, and the idea of illusion in mind, will we not always respond to questions of the type posed by W.J.T. Mitchell in the same way? What does the image want? To alienate from the real conditions of life, to propose an alluring abstracted visual that obscures reality, to cajole us into participation into its system of prescribed roles. I am being somewhat hyperbolic, and certainly a more individualized analysis is possible, but won’t the heart of that analysis eventually boil down to the above statements?
This graphic from the wall street journal helps us understand the modern spectacles power. Although the visual itself is slightly problematic (some of the groupings are a bit unclear or misleading), it does help understand the spectacle.